Over the past two months I’ve been considering my decision to abstain from violence in 2017.
The thought first came to me when I was writing to my older brother about HBO’s new television series, Westworld. Like so many others, I was really kind of thrilled about the show. I love sci-fi, puzzles, and philosophy. And there’s this great list of contributors to the whole: Michael Crichton, Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, J.J. Abrams, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and many more.
When I shared my interest in the show along with links to a teaser, he replied:
This all looks like crap designed to get people hooked on normalized PTSD. Fill up society with “entertainment” full of sadism and domination based around regressive hypersexualized stereotypes and then act surprised when people elect gangster rapists.
This conversation took place at the end of November last year.
Undaunted, I responded with a defense for the show’s commentary on violence in that the human “guests” in the show are not necessarily heroes, but the opposite due to their clear sadism toward and domination over the non-human “hosts” with whom the audience often sympathizes more.
He responded with:
Violence of any kind is always evil in its essence, and being exposed to it has measurable cognitive effects. I think we’ve had enough of it as entertainment, and the Greeks were right to exclude it from theatrical display.
I wrote back to say that it might be wishful thinking to imagine the absence (not prohibition) of onstage violence in Greek tragedy was due to anything more than its impracticality (or even its “fake” and distracting qualities) and that the use of spoken language instead to describe the violence occurring offstage actually worked to heighten the effect rather than diminish it.
Regardless, I think his underlying point was what carried the most weight. We’ve had enough of violence as entertainment– and even further, perhaps violence of any kind is always evil. I wanted to wrestle with the second point a bit, but the first was really unassailable.
I know the Greek theatre was intending to heal rather than entertain in its literary use and depiction of violence. The Temple of Asclepius (basically, the hospital) and the theatre were built next to one another. Wounded soldiers returning from war were cared for both in body and in spirit through the two facilities. (I had the great fortune to perform the Messenger in Aeschylus’ The Persians on an ancient stage in Cyprus a number of years ago, and remember warming up among the ruins of the temple next door before each performance.) Well, this was the argument I had in my mind for the use of violence in theatre, film, or TV today– that violence could be handled with some care using today’s conventions, as it most likely was for the Greeks. It could be used to generate commentary and perhaps even healing or social change. But… did I really believe this?
Let’s be honest. Violence is simply an accepted form of primetime entertainment across all media platforms these days. It rarely if ever seeks catharsis and subsequent healing (which presupposes sensitivity and vulnerability in an audience). Instead, it engenders further insensitivity and even delight in the experience of violence. In this way, it is correct to find more humanity in the non-human hosts of Westworld than in the paying guests who come to rape and murder for the mounting thrill that such sadism and domination brings. But if you’ve seen the end to season one of the series, you know exactly what those hosts end up doing themselves. A bit of the old ultra-violence.
Still wrestling with the ramifications of this, I passed up the the new year on January first with its possibilities for resolutions. But now I find myself in the Chinese New Year having come to a decision– I want to dig into this hypothesis that violence of any kind is always evil and give some factual accounting for it. And I want to do this firsthand.
So I’ve decided to actively refrain from taking part in violence in any form this year.
It’s going to be a challenge, as I will describe more in detail in my next post, but I think its time to find some things I’ve lost due to the violence in and around me.
So, here we go.